Brexit and the Border

I wrote this back in early August of last year, under the title “Another Great Speech and some feelings”. I didn’t post it. I was just about to, when looking up something online I happened upon this article about Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill – and I thought hmm maybe this situation doesn’t need my commentary. So I just left it among the rest of the drafts.

There has been a lot of talk recently about how to resolve the issue of the Irish border and some UK politicians have started suggesting that Ireland is playing hardball over the border for purely economic reasons. Wow… if you think that you have no idea what the situation is here. The issue of a border being set up again is a highly emotive one – regardless of how quickly cars, trucks and vans will be able to pass through it. So I’m posting this old piece because the feelings haven’t gone away.

Another Great Speech and some feelings

This time the speech is by our own taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, speaking last week at Queen’s University.

I’ve decamped from my normal abode this month while some work is going on there and it’s going to be difficult for me to do recipe posts during this time. So I’m going to post mostly rambling thoughts over the next few weeks. Going by the stats my rambles and rants aren’t at all popular but I enjoy them so I hope you’ll indulge me – or at least pop back in September when this food blog will be more obviously a food blog.

I first heard clips of this speech on Monday. I was packing away stuff before leaving, had my wireless headphones on and youtube on autoplay. A channel had posted a programme by LBC, a London based radio station, and the dj James O’Brien, who clearly leans more towards the Remain side, was saying that Leo Varadkar is raising the important questions regarding Northern Ireland, the lack of certainty about the UK’s future relationship with EU and the approaching deadline for the end of negotiations – March 2019. I really liked the bits of the speech I heard. To be honest I’ve been delighted generally by the change in tone of Fine Gael regarding the issue of a possible new border.

Sometimes FG can appear to be, to me at least, a little too deferential to foreign powers, particularly the UK – it’s maddening and rather than assuaging any nationalist feelings or fears it can have quite the opposite effect. This speech is great because it speaks of the new plurality of the Irish nation, the importance of diversity and equality, and it also recognises the unique nature of national identity in Northern Ireland which can be multiple things at once – and to those unfamiliar with the history some of those elements might appear contradictory but they are not. Varadkar also states his preference for the UK staying in the single market or at least the customs union. It’s a good speech – and I’m very late sharing it – but if you haven’t heard it take a listen.

I couldn’t share the original video because the channel has received two copyright infringement strikes and will be shut down and have their content deleted if they recieve a third strike. I went on to LBC’s own channel but they seem to just upload a bit of a programme every now and then – LBC, you know you can monetize videos on Youtube, right? Why not upload all your shows? Just asking…

A border can only lead to division

Let’s be clear here, there can be no “technological solution” for nationalist feelings. I was listening to Morning Ireland when Nigel Dodds of the DUP was talking about how unhelpful Ireland is being about the possibility of a new border. Apparently Ireland should be coming up with helpful technological solutions for easing trade between us and a new, more separate Northern Ireland. Because of course there is so little that entwines us really; the only issue to worry about is creating frictionless trade, isn’t it? People won’t really mind having to stop to have their passports checked or having to put up with delays as lorries are checked or things like that, because everyone so obviously accepts that Northern Ireland and Ireland are completely separate entities. It’s not like anyone ever says things like 26 + 6 = 1. No. There’s no issues like that. And sure if there are some people who have issues with mathematics then having them work on “technological solutions” will obviously help with that too.

I was surprised at the level of anger I felt listening to him. Surprised, and slightly dismayed. These issues had been resolved. Northern Ireland is in the UK but it is also in the same union as the Republic of Ireland. This set up allows for people in Northern Ireland to feel completely separate from the Republic – or not. It lessens the importance of political geography and instead helps people connect – or not – if they so choose.

I consider anyone who calls this island their home Irish. If you tell me that’s not how you see yourself I’ll accept that – but I will still think of you as Irish. It doesn’t make any difference to me if Northern Ireland is in the UK. I didn’t think I cared at all. I could see why if I was living in the North I’d want it to remain in the UK. Mostly because of the NHS – it’s great. I am very proud of being Irish. And if I was living in Northern Ireland would I feel any less Irish? No, of course not. Would it bother me that the majority of people living in Northern Ireland want to remain in the UK and do not want a united Ireland? No, I don’t think so. Would it bother me that some people in Northern Ireland want to see Northern Ireland more separated from the Republic? It would. I would be a bit scared of those attitudes. I suppose others are just as threatened by the attitudes of people wanting to unite Ireland.

Being honest about it, things felt more settled before the Brexit vote. There are links between the Republic and Northern Ireland, strong historical, familial, cultural and sporting links, but I don’t think they’re viewed as a threat to anyone who wants Northern Ireland to remain in UK. I think most people throughout the island are happy for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK – provided that everyone on the island remains able to claim Irish citizenship and that there will be no impediment – of any sort – to people moving about the island, working wherever and/or being part of life here and/or there.

Talking about a border being constructed once again between Northern Ireland and the Republic as merely a “technical” issue is stoking up nationalist feelings in a dangerous way.

Am I saying there’s no way for the UK to leave the EU without violence breaking out in Northern Ireland? No, but I think the way the exit is currently being handled is not helping the situation. How should it be handled, you ask? Or possibly didn’t, and never would. But here goes…

Dreaming of a beautiful Brexit…

I think the real problem the UK faces in its Brexit negotiations is its relative lack of barganing power. Now maybe the UK has some ace up their sleeve that will force the EU into giving the (third country completely outside the EU) UK frictionless access to the single market but it is kind of hard to see from here how they could possibly manage that. But if the UK were to leave the EU but remain in the EEA this would mean that they would still have the same benefits of membership, while still being able to signal a lack of support or enthusiasm for the direction EU integration is currently taking. This obviously wouldn’t be really leaving but it could be quite an effective call for reform of the EU.

But you want to leave the EU completely? OK. How about doing it in a way that allows you to increase your bargaining power? Stay in the EEA for next 10 – 15 years. During that time work with the developing nations within the Commonwealth to progress and integrate their economies (perhaps starting with green technologies) with the intention of evolving the commonwealth into a common market and eventually a free trade area. It may sound very pie-in-the-sky right now but if this could be achieved then you would have a real bargaining chip for having access to the EU’s market on your own terms. Also – minor point but worth noting – it would be a good thing to do. More than good. It would be world changing in a really positive way.

And how would that solve the issue of Northern Ireland? Well if the UK was able to offer the EU access to this free trade area then presumably it would have the bargaining power to negotiate free and frictionless access to the single market – even as a third country – which would eliminate the need for a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

But wouldn’t the EU see that the UK was developing industry in Commonwealth countries and punish it for trying to make business opportunities for itself in countries outside the EU? Um … no. That’s not how the EU works at all. Like not at all. In fact if the UK’s ventures in these countries proved successful it would probably spur on other economically developed countries – not just in the EU but throughout the world – to start similar projects. Done right, it could transform our world.

I know. I sound like I’m letting myself be carried away by some fantasy. And yes, maybe it is pie-in-the-sky – but it doesn’t have to be, does it? There is obviously enormous growth potential in the economically underdeveloped parts of world. And the benefits of such growth would be a more equal and more secure world. There is so much dumb talk these days about protecting countries from migrants. Want to lessen the flow of migrants from poorer countries? Don’t bother building walls. Invest in those places, develop them, improve people’s lives there. It’s the right thing to do and it would benefit us all.

Look, I don’t know. But I know the issue of a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is a highly charged one. And I doubt there’s some kind of technology that can neutralise it.


I hope the UK is going to make a real success of Brexit. And I would love if it did so in an outward-looking way that isn’t about defending something intangible and undefined, and is about creating real and visible progress throughout its union – and hopefully the world, who knows?

But please recognise that the issue of erecting any kind of border on this island is not a technical one. It’s not simply about trade and economics. It’s about whether we are going to see a division concretized.

The Belfast Agreement is 20 years old this year. 20 years of peace – even if there is still much work to be done and the DUP and Sinn Fein can’t reach a power sharing agreement at the moment – 20 years of peace is an amazing achievement. It would be a terrible shame to see all that progress and work undone because some politicians made the grave error of thinking “the Irish question” is just a matter of economics.